Moishe House and Jewish identity in College and Beyond

Every day I speak with parents of college-bound students. They have questions and concerns about all things related to education. Through their questions,  I learn so much about what’s on their hearts and how I might be able to help them answer their question. I received an interesting question recently related to Jewish life on college campuses. This question led me on a search about not only Jewish life on a specific college campus but also the quality of Jewish life in that local community. For many college campuses, they are not necessarily an island onto themselves, but they are deeply embedded in the surrounding community. For example, a campus-like USC has a big enough footprint that perhaps it could operate as its own community. Instead, USC has taken a number of steps to introduce its student community to all that the greater Los Angeles area has to offer. Whether it’s through community service or the Arts, USC and Los Angeles are intertwined in the success of student life. Thus, for evaluating Jewish life on campus, I think it’s important to also consider Jewish life in the surrounding community.

Now 46 Moishe Houses around the world
Now 46 Moishe Houses around the world

Through my research on Jewish life on and off-campus, I learned about Moishe House. Moishe House is an international organization of home-based communities that promote and celebrate Jewish life for 20-somethings. In the podcast above, I interviewed David Cygielman, who is the co-founder and CEO of Moishe House. David shared with us what Moishe House is about, its start, future growth, and what it means to Jewish life on and off-campus. Prior to this role, David had more than 10 years of experience in non-profit management and won numerous awards. He’s a proud graduate of the University of California at Santa Barbara. We were delighted to have David on The Education Doctor Radio Show.

Here are a few excerpts from the interview:

Moishe House Background

Dr. Pamela:    David, we may have some listeners who are unfamiliar with Moishe House.  If you can just start out by telling us what it is and how you first came up with the idea to start it.

David Cygielman:     Moishe House is the largest organization now in the world for young adult Jewish life post-college, pre settling down.  We really work in the age range of 21 to 30 years old.  The way the program works is this:  There are actually 46 Moishe Houses around the world. We are in 14 countries now.  The model is that we found young adults were already yearning to have a Jewish community.  They were already living together in houses in addition to having their full-time jobs or graduate school. They were lacking Jewish involvement. They had been involved up through college and consider themselves to be getting re-involved once they settled down but for this growing time span of the 20s and early 30s, there was a real lack of Jewish life dedicated to this population.

The way we started this organization was this.  I was in Santa Barbara and had graduated from college at UC Santa Barbara. When I was back up in the Bay Area actually visiting my family, I went to dinner with four friends at their house.  They were four friends I had met on an Israel trip when we were in high school through the Jewish Federation here in the East Bay.  They were four guys and they were roommates.  Three were working and one was in graduate school.  When we were taking, they and I, noticed we had no real engagement in Jewish life even though we had up until this point in our life.  It seemed pretty easy in the sense that they already had a house. They had couches. They had a dining room. They had a lot of Jewish friends.  What they really needed was the structure or support to turn that into a real Jewish community.

I talked with a funder in Santa Barbara, who I already knew, Morris Squire, and gave them the opportunity to turn their house into a real vibrant center for Jewish life. They hosted a Shabbat dinner the following Friday night and 73 people came, which was “Wow”. This was in Oakland.  The next week we got an e-mail from someone saying, “I went to this Shabbat.  It was an amazing experience. I have three friends.  Could we do this in San Francisco?”  That’s how the program began.  Since then, we have been getting e-mails from all over the United States and then the World.  We have Moishe Houses on five continents.  I actually just got back this week from visiting for the first time Moishe House in Beijing.  We have Moishe House in the former Soviet Union, Europe, South Africa, and South America.  It has really grown as there has been this renaissance of Jewish life for this growing population of young adults who are too old for what exists or too young for what exists.  Now we are providing something that is really built for their age group.

How to start a new Moishe House

Dr. Pamela:  Here is a big question for you. I am based in Ohio now.  I know there is a significant Jewish population in the Cleveland area, like in my old neighborhood of Shaker Heights.  There are also several major colleges and universities in the area and you probably know where this going right?  There is no Moishe House in Cleveland.  How do you know where to open a new house?

David Cygielman:   Well, a house opens in one of two ways.  Either we get a set of applicants. We get a group who say, “Look, we live in Cleveland or we live in Columbus and we would like to open a Moishe House here.”  In that case, we would then start working with the local community to see if we are able to raise partner dollars in supporting that Moishe House. It is a really cost-effective program, so an entire Moishe House costs less than a staff person would. The other way a house opens is that a community reaches out and says, “It would really interesting and we would love to support having a Moishe House in our community.”  Then we go out and look to see if there are great applicants.  Columbus, Ohio is a great example where we are working with the Federation right now who has said, “We would love to explore opening a Moishe House.”  We are actually looking to see if the population exists to actually open one.